A-levels alone don’t cut the mustard with employers seeking practical skills

Mark Boleat
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Elite employers can count the academic ability of job seekers as a given (Source: Getty)
On Thursday, thousands of students will open their A-level results envelopes and learn their fate. A few letters will determine whether they get a university place or an apprenticeship, or climb onto that first rung of the employment ladder. Schools in London have undergone a dramatic transformation in the last decade, with the growth of academies and free schools helping to diversify the educational landscape and provide youngsters with even more learning opportunities. Achieving good results, however, does not guarantee success in later life.

With results consistently improving each year, elite employers can count the academic ability of job seekers as a given. What’s more important is a young person’s ability to perform in the workplace and bring a crop of practical employability skills, such as communication, presentation and problem-solving. According to a recent CBI/Pearson survey, 85 per cent of employers regarded character and attitude as among the most important factors when recruiting school or college leavers, compared with the 24 per cent who count exam results as paramount. A further 61 per cent said they were not satisfied with young peoples’ resilience and self-management, and that schools should focus more on developing attitude and aptitude.

Often repeated in job specifications, these sorts of skills are hugely sought-after by businesses. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has highlighted in recent research that students from wealthier backgrounds tend to “hoard the best opportunities” because they have soft skills in abundance; whether it be through their parents’ social networks or by attending the best schools, which tend to place a high value on developing well-rounded students.

Relying on a small talent pool is not sustainable for any business with serious growth ambitions. London boasts some of the most successful firms and will continue to outpace the rest of the UK in job growth. These employers will need thousands of talented young people to expand their workforce and ensure they remain competitive. That’s why EY has joined PwC in discounting A-level results and the minimum 2:1 degree grade as a precursor to getting onto its graduate scheme. This is a strong signal that many valuable skills can’t be graded in a conventional test.

If we are to level the playing field and make sure all capable young people get a shot at the top jobs, employers and schools need to build stronger relationships. There are of course great examples here in the City, such as UBS and Societe Generale, which offer paid summer internships, via charity Brokerage Citylink, to bright pupils from state schools in deprived areas of London. During their three month placements, the interns get hands-on experience and a chance to work alongside senior management, which gives them a good insight into financial and professional services.

While many large firms have robust CSR policies that engage their local community on issues like skills, it is important that these activities become firmly embedded into a company’s recruitment policy. Employee mentoring of state school pupils, organising school visits to the workplace, and taking part in careers fairs should all be underpinned by a strong desire to develop skills and source the workforce for the future.

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